Mount Kinabalu, sitting at 4,095.2m (13,435 feet) in the Malaysian state of Sabah, is the highest peak in Malaysia, and had been on my to do list for years.
Mount Kinabalu is not the toughest mountain to climb in the world, and you don’t even need proper hiking boots (we saw countless porters wearing Crocs!), but it is still a difficult climb, and now having done the climb, I highly recommend doing some sort of pre-training before tackling the mountain. Your body will thank you later!
Before hitting the mountain, we would be staying within the picturesque Mount Kinabalu World Heritage Park grounds. I felt like I was back in eastern Europe – the Park is lush, green and cool, sitting at a pretty 1700m elevation. We were fortunate enough to be upgraded from the dormitory accommodation to our own spacious lodges, fitted out with their own fire places and big balconies – the perfect place to get a good pre-climb sleep in!
There was too much exploring around the Park to be done first though. The Park grounds are made up of a network of trails, some interconnected, varying in degree of length and difficulty. We chose part of the Silau-Silau trail, as it was quite easy and linked with the path to the Mt Kinabalu Botanic Gardens (5 MYR entrance fee) before heading towards the entrance to the Kiau View Trail. The entrance is a bit tricky to find and the start can be quite steep, but the rest of the walk was moderately difficult. It was apparently the original entrance to Mount Kinabalu and provides scenic views over the valley and the nearby Kadazan Dunsun Village. Unfortunately, a fog had settled over most of our walk and we were left with a creepy walk through the jungle. The walks are a great chance to ‘warm up’ before hitting the main event the next day and to also to start getting acclimatized.
After a carb-loaded buffet breakfast it was time to get organised for our trip. This involved plenty of admin work, including getting registered (all climbers need to pre-register and are issued with a card and laynyard to wear at all times during the climb in case you are checked) and indemnity waiver forms (there was an earthquake in the area in 2015). We were soon all sorted and into our mini vans, making our way to the Timpohon Gate, the entrance and exit for all climbers. After a few ‘before’ photos we made our through the gates and onto the trail.
Our first target for day 1 would be Laban Rata – 6kms from the bottom and at 3272m elevation, a distance that takes roughly 4-6 hours, depending on your pace. The first 3 kms were hot and steamy and our layers were soon off. Rest huts are located along the trail, roughly every kilometre, and provides some respite from the humidity and rain, and a chance to snack and smash as much water as possible. It is recommended to consume 2 litres of water for the first ascent to Laban Rata and to also be considerate of your rubbish, as this all needs to be brought back down the mountain.
Many of us encountered (or in some instances, were quickly passed) by the nimble footed Porters on the mountain. The only way to get everything to Laban Rata, including everything from food, rubbish collection and building materials is via Porters. These porters are small and strong and it was mind-boggling to see them carrying a construction beam on their backs. It made our struggle with our bags seem like nothing.
We were fortunate to have 4 guides with us with plenty of Mount Kinabalu experience between them. I asked one guide how many times he had climbed the mountain. He had said he had lost count, but he had been climbing the mountain roughly once a week for the last 13 years – that’s around 650 climbs!
By the time we made the 4 km mark for our lunch rest stop, the rain had started and began bucketing down. We pushed on for the last 2 kms in the rain, soaking wet. Ponchos keeping our bags and cameras dry. We made Laban Rata at around 2pm – taking us around 5 hours to reach, a pretty cracking pace.
After a well deserved shower, it was down into the common area for a few hot drinks after our walk and to take in the amazing views of Laban Rata. We were staying in the main guest house in Laban Rata that serves all food for everyone staying at Laban Rata for the night. Limited numbers of visitors are allowed on the Mountain at a time (130) so it can be quite busy as everyone heads down for meals. The buffet is delicious but there is also a small ‘shop’ where additional noodles and drinks can be purchased. Just like on the Alps in Europe, be prepared to a pay a premium for your beer!
Day 2 Summitt to Peak
In order to take in the summitt at sunrise, we needed to be up at 2am the next morning. They said that this would be the hardest part of the trek. I thought nothing could be harder than the day before but it was definitely A LOT harder. After a light breakfast from the buffet, we left, layered in the dark with our head torches, aiming to get to the the peak for sunrise.
Its quite crowded and slow on the way up, especially just past Laban Rata. Narrow staircases in the dark for the next hour mkae it a tricky first start. Hand rails give you something to follow, as well as ropes that lead the way.
We are then encountered by some sections of sheer rock face where ropes are needed to pull yourself up with. Its hard work, especially in the dark.
We then need to check our selves in at the 7km mark hut, as all those that enter need to be marked off for safety reasons. An earthquake in 2015 resulted in the death of a guide. All precautions are taken to keep all visitors safe and accounted for. Remnants if the earthquake can be seen as you push to the 8km mark – massive boulders sitting alone on the rock face are one.
We were fortunate to gave made our final push on a day of perfect weather – the skies were clear, no wind and it was not too cold.
As we made our way in a zig-zag fashion up the last 700m of the peak, glimpses of sunrise peaked over the top and we knew we were in for a treat.
Unfortunately , the very top peak is a rocky, scrambling mess as the hundred tourists that all made the summit push that morning, fight for a spot at the top and a photo opportunity. I was happy to get one photo and get down asap – the fight is scary ans a sharp drop to the bottom is all there is on the other side.
It was my partners birthday and he was looking for a spot to ourselves to enjoy the spectacular view. Our first attempt we were followed by others in our group. We walked a bit further down to a quiet spot. He then gave me an amazing surprise by bringing out a beautiful ring and asking me to marry him! It was a perfect moment and topped of our achievement. After wiping back the tears it was back to making our way back down to Laban Rata, which took around 3 hours.
The sun was well and truly out by the time we started making our descent, even though it was relatively early still. I recommend a hat and lots of sunscreen. The descent to Laban Rata was a good time to take in and appreciate what we had walked up in the dark that morning – the views were stunning and the photos do no justice – we were literally walking in the clouds!
After devouring a hot breakfast and putting out 5 minutes, it was time to make our way back to the bottom. We departed Laban Rata around 10.30, not long before the rains opened up around midday, again turning the walkways into running creek beds over jagged rocks and steep steps.
This was the longest and toughest 5 hours of my life, and definitely much harder then the ascent up the mountain the day before. The walk was hard, especially as I tried to protect my left knee from too much strain. I’d definitely recommend knee braces to anyone. My feet were aching (probably from shoes that were way too tight) and each step was a grimace. Fortunately, I had my patient fiancee and one of our guides helping me each step of the way.
At 3.30pm we finally had made it back to Timphon Gates, and were quickly bused back to the Park lodges and buffet lunch – for the best tasking Laksa and most well deserved beer ever!
Celebration and relaxing in Poring Hot Springs
A 45 min to 1 hour drive from Mout Kinabalu Heritage Park is the Poring Hot Spring Park (run by the same company), it is a good place to relax and soak your muscles in the public baths. Temperatures range from 49 – 60 degrees, depending on the weather. Our entrance to the park was covered by our Mt Kinabalu ticket, so the only costs were for private pools or if you wanted to do additional activites, such as the Canopy Walk (5 RM), Butterfly Farm (4 RM) and Orchid Conservation Centre (10RM). There is also a chance to see the famous Reddesia Flowers, famous for being the biggest flowers in the world when in bloom (over a metre in diameter). We were way to tired and sore for any more walking – we wanted to enjoy our engagement over a few beers and rice wine!
Climbing Mount Kinabalu has to be the hardest physical challenge I have completed in my life, and I consider myself relatively fit! I would definitely recommend doing as much training as you can before you arrive. The reward is unbeatable – beautiful views and a great sense of achievement to last a lifetime!